It’s no surprise that the list of books I first read as a boy and have continued to read periodically ever sense, despite fortunate changes in taste and understanding, is brief and respectable. Nothing to be ashamed of. No Zane Gray (whom I’ve never read) or Jules Verne (whom I haven’t read since I started shaving). There’s the Bible, Kim and Robinson Crusoe, all of which give me even more pleasure now than when I first read them as a kid. But when a reader wrote this week asking which “classic” (his word, not mine) I would recommend for his twelve-year-old daughter (“She’s already a strong reader”), the answer was simple: Gulliver’s Travels. The book can be read without strain as pure adventure and/or savage satire. The “and/or” is the secret to Swift’s genius. I can’t remember my initial reaction to the Houyhnhnms. Today, their portion of the book, Part IV, is my favorite. Gulliver, at last, knows a measure of happiness. What the Houyhnhnms lack is precisely what England has in excess, as spelled out in Chap X:
“I enjoyed perfect Health of Body and Tranquillity of Mind; I did not find the Treachery or Inconstancy of a Friend, nor the Injuries of a secret or open Enemy. I had no occasion of bribing, flattering or pimping, to procure the Favour of any great Man or of his Minion. I wanted no Fence against Fraud or Oppression; Here was neither Physician to destroy my Body, nor Lawyer to ruin my Fortune; No Informer to watch my Words, and Actions, or forge Accusations against me for Hire: Here were no Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters, Pick-pockets, Highwaymen, Housebreakers, Attorneys, Bawds, Buffoons, Gamesters, Politicians, Wits, splenetick tedious Talkers, Controvertists, Ravishers, Murderers, Robbers, Virtuoso's, no Leaders or Followers of Party and Faction; no Encouragers to Vice, by Seducement or Examples: No Dungeon, Axes, Gibbets, Whipping-posts, or Pillories: No cheating Shop-keepers or Mechanicks: No Pride, Vanity or Affectation: No Fops, Bullies, Drunkards, strolling Whores, or Poxes: No ranting, lewd, expensive Wives: No stupid, proud Pedants: No importunate, overbearing, quarrelsome, noisy, roaring, empty, conceited, swearing Companions: No Scoundrels, raised from the Dust for the sake of their Vices, or Nobility thrown into it on account of their Virtues: No Lords, Fidlers, Judges or Dancing-Masters.”
No Dancing-Masters, praise be. Swift delivers a lesson in stone-cold irony, a catalog of accelerating hilarity and some of the cleanest prose in the language. Precisely what a twelve-year-old needs.